A Tale of Two Resorts: One vacation, two experiences

A Tale of Two Resorts: One vacation, two experiences

There’s an old saying (very old―it dates from the sixteenth century) that we’re sure you’ve heard before: It’s an ill wind that blows no good, or as it was originally written: “An yll wynde, that blowth no man to good…” In some ways, we could say that about the last two years of seriously restricted travel because returning to travel has been a little like conjuring the excitement of doing something for the first time. Now that we’ve returned home from our winter sojourn in the Caribbean, we can tell you that we’ve been making up for lost time. As we told you in our last post, we had a three-part vacation. Let’s talk about the first two parts.

When the dust had settled on our cancelled Caribbean cruise and we put together our vacation, we decided we wanted to return to the islands, with the emphasis on the plural―islands. One would not be enough. Since both Caribbean stops were similar in that they were both low-rise, beachfront, adults-only properties, which included everything, it only seemed natural that we’d make comparisons. And we made lots. Let’s start this trip in Barbados.

We arrived at The House on the west coast of Barbados in mid-afternoon and were greeted by one of their onsite “ambassadors.” [For a few more details, we did introduce The House in our last post.] A thirty-four all-suite property, The House takes its name literally. We were led into the living room that opens to both the entrance and the beachfront to the rear. There is no reception desk, no concierge desk―only a living room furnished with comfortable couches and “ambassadors” who will attend to your wishes (when you can find one).

Our suite was exactly like the one we had when we were last here nine years ago, except we were on the ground floor this time. This location turned out to be excellent in that we could step out onto our lanai, then into the pool and onto the beach beyond. The suite is so pretty but the bathroom―let’s just say it was past its best-before date by some years.

The property is now all-inclusive, an amenity it didn’t offer nine years ago. Is this a good thing? Well, the food is not for foodies, but we enjoyed it. Last time around, we took advantage of the wonderful restaurants dotting the west coast of Barbados. We stayed on the property this time, eating all our meals in the living room/dining room and at Positano, the Italian restaurant attached to the property. This was actually a good thing, though, because the COVID restrictions are (were in February 2022) in full force. There were interesting (if limited) buffets on some evenings, à la carte offerings on others. The lunches were the best of all.

The property is quiet, populated with mostly older guests hailing from Britain. There may have been a few Americans―we didn’t hear any. And there was a smattering of Canadians. There are only thirty-four suites, though, so there weren’t many people at all.

If we are being honest (and making a comparison), the beach and pool deck services were a bit spotty. It depended on which staff member happened to be working that day. Some were wonderful―others not so much.

So, what do you do at a property like this one? It’s quiet, and that’s what we wanted, frankly. But we also walked a few kilometres north and visited the Limegrove Lifestyle Centre― a fancy-sounding name for a small mall with a few upscale retailers such as Cartier and Longchamp. Then there was a short run into Bridgetown.

Sadly, the capital does not appear to have weathered the tourist dearth over the past two years very well. We saw many shuttered shops and very few tourists at all. And everyone on the street was wearing a mask. So, it was a short stop, and we were back in a taxi and back to The House to enjoy the sound of the surf, a bit of relaxation and a really good glass of Mount Gay XO rum on the rocks. The House provided us with a QR code to book a COVID test that we’d need for our onward travel. A charming young doctor arrived at our suite on the last Saturday morning, completed our test and paperwork and then it was off to St. Lucia.

Getting to St. Lucia is a subject for a whole other day. Can you say privately chartered aircraft? Well, yes, we can (but that is for another post!). When we arrived in St. Lucia, we navigated the health requirements, which resulted in donning white bracelets reminiscent of hospital identity bracelets.

The bracelet

They signified to everyone that we were adequately vaccinated and negatively tested, and we had to wear them until we left the country. We hopped in the waiting transportation and headed off to The BodyHoliday for the next week.

We arrived at The BodyHoliday long before standard check-in time, so we had to stow our belongings in well-appointed lockers. Then we headed off to the beach and lunch. When the time came for us to get into our suite, it wasn’t ready. We waited and waited. At first, patiently, then after an hour and a half, not so patiently. Finally, a concierge staff member told us the truth―the reason we couldn’t access our room was that the previous guest (who was supposed to check out at noon) still hadn’t left at four p.m. It’s hard to believe that anyone could be that obnoxious, but there are those around. To make up for our wait, the executive housekeeper asked us if there was anything we wanted. Usually, in those situations, the answer is not really, but we did have something in mind this time. We asked for a bottle of a very high-end St. Lucian rum we’d wanted to sample. A bottle of the not so high-end version arrived that same day, and a bottle of Forgotten Cask arrived the next day. Bliss on a balcony overlooking the beach!

Then, there was a lovely surprise. The first evening we arrived back in our room after dinner, the room was serviced and there was a tea tray with tiny biscuits. That chamomile tea helped us to drift right off. Every evening thereafter, another tea tray magically arrived with a different herbal concoction every evening. such a nice touch!

What about the resort, and how does it compare to The House. First, it’s larger. It’s not a high-rise, but it does have over two hundred rooms and suites, and it sits on a thirty-acre property which is so much larger than The House. Both are adults-only, but the guest demographic at The BodyHoliday skewed much younger. We expected that since this vacation can be a very active one with so many extras included.

One of the extras that we enjoyed daily was the included spa treatments. Each day you’re a guest here, you can have one of an extensive series of spa treatments, from massages to facials. We availed ourselves of the gamut. It’s possible to book these in advance, but we had a few issues with glitches in the online booking system and said to hell with it and left it up to them. When we arrived, we were each provided with a personalized schedule of daily treatments. We just had to get ourselves up the many steps leading up to the Wellness Centre to partake. It is worth noting that this may not be the spot for you if you have mobility issues. The property will provide an alternative lift up the hill, but the property itself isn’t really friendly to those who can’t walk a lot. There are lots of stairs and no elevators.

Unlike The House, one of the highlights was the food. As a rule, we’re not buffet-lovers, but the buffet at the main restaurant was quiet and extremely well-provisioned. As you can imagine, since this is a wellness holiday, there is an emphasis on healthy food. Every dish on offer had a small placard beside it indicating its content. For people who have chosen to restrict their diets in one way or another, it would have been heaven. Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free etc.―they were all available. We don’t go for that kind of restriction, so we just enjoyed sampling many new dishes. The stand-out lunch was the Indian buffet.

The property has one onsite special restaurant they call Windows. A couple of times a week, they turn the buffet areas of the main restaurant into a special, reservation-only space that is advertised as something special. When a server asks Patty to reuse her fork―not once, but twice―there is nothing fine dining about it. Reusing cutlery? Not unless we’re at a low-end diner. It didn’t live up to its hype, and we’d definitely give it a miss the next time.

Then there was the spa. The Wellness Centre on the top of the hill above the beach and restaurant area was all we hoped it would be. It was beautiful, quiet, meditative and Zen-like and offered some of the most enjoyable treatments. We also consulted with the onsite Ayurvedic doctor, and that was worth the extra money we spent, if only for its entertainment value.

Then there were other activities on offer. In fact, there were so many that they had to give us a booklet when we checked in. Yoga and Pilates classes. Meditation classes. Scuba diving lessons and dives. Snorkelling. Hobie craft sailing. Paddleboarding. Windsurfing. Tennis lessons. Golf lessons. Aquacise classes (those were very popular in their activities pool which was separate from their pool for leisure swimming and sun-bathing). And the list goes on. It was exhausting just reading it. But the good news was you could select to do as much or as little as you like. We enjoyed exploring the walking trails on the property and relaxing to the sounds of the ocean waves in Cariblue Bay, the little bay that The BodyHoliday has all to itself.

When it was time to leave, the concierge made us an appointment with their onsite nurse, who did our COVID tests and paperwork so we could move on to the third destination on our multi-layered vacation.

So, how did these two Caribbean, adults-only, low-rise, all-inclusive properties compare in the end? Well, there you have the similarities: location in the Caribbean, guests restricted to adults, no high rises and everything included. Everything else was different.

Despite our penchant for smaller resorts (we suppose that by most people’s standards, The BodyHoliday was small, The House minuscule), we preferred The BodyHoliday and would return in a nanosecond. But you do need to book an oceanfront room―not an oceanview. The oceanview rooms are much higher up the hill, away from the sounds of the surf. But, of course, they’re cheaper!

We have a great story to tell about our trip between islands. Stay tuned!

If you have a few minutes and would like to see what these two resorts are all about, here are the two video tours we made for you.

Our return to The House in Barbados
Our first visit to The BodyHoliday

Dust off Those Passports: First (almost) Post-COVID Trip

Dust off Those Passports: First (almost) Post-COVID Trip

When we returned home from our winter getaway in early March of 2020, we could see the handwriting on the wall. With our medical backgrounds (Art’s forty-five years as a family physician helped), it was clear that the impending pandemic would put a damper on international travel for some time to come. We immediately cancelled our planned and booked Northern European adventure and settled in to ride out the travel restrictions. It never occurred to us at the time that it would be a full two years before we left the country again! But it finally happened.

Passports dusted!

In mid-2021, in a burst of optimism, we booked a two-week Caribbean cruise on Seabourn’s Odyssey, including three days before it in Barbados and three days after the cruise in St. Martin, then a few days in Florida to round it out. We had our flight to Barbados scheduled for early February 2022 booked and paid for. By October, when the final payment for the (expensive) cruise was due, we looked at the international situation and considered our options. Then reality struck―and it had nothing to do with COVID.

Facebook might have its shortcomings, but occasionally, you can stumble on a valuable piece of information. Patty trolls the cruise groups from time to time and happened to join a Seabourn group. One of the members posted about cancelling their cruise because they wouldn’t be permitted off the ship in many ports or only in a Seabourn shore excursion group. Well, that wasn’t going to happen for us. The thought of being stuck on a small ship―or even a larger ship―for two weeks (regardless of the high-quality service) or worse, stuck with disembarking only with other people was a non-starter for us. For us, a Caribbean cruise means taking a luxurious ship as transportation between islands where we like to meander off the ship in our own time and explore―alone. With the spectre of a group thing for weeks on end (never mind that COVID was still raging), we called our travel agent and cancelled. But we asked her not to do anything with the flights as yet. There were many moving pieces, but there was still hope.

First, we extended our three-day stay in Barbados to a week and booked a fully refundable ticket to St. Lucia (refundable because we had an idea for a personal charter―we’ll get to that in a later post). And why St. Lucia, you might ask? As it happens, we had spent our honeymoon thirty-five years ago in St. Lucia and hadn’t been back except for a few day trips off a ship. There is also a resort we wanted to discover, so we booked a week at the BodyHoliday, changed our original flight from St. Martin to Miami to St. Lucia-Miami, and extended our stay in Florida so we could leave our return flight as is. So, how did it go?

Marvellously! Notwithstanding the COVID hoops we had to jump through every time we changed locales, things could not have gone better.

The island of Barbados!

That first moment when we walked off the Air Canada flight in Bridgetown, Barbados, into the sultry heat of the Caribbean sun, we knew we had made the right decision not to put off our travels any longer. We had learned another tidbit of information from a FB site: Enterprising Barbados businesses were offering a “fast-track” service through Grantley-Adams airport. So, we booked the Five Star Fast Track service, paid in advance and were met before even entering the immigration hall by a lovely and personable, bright-pink-and black-clad woman who led us directly to another door where our QR codes indicating we had uploaded all our health documents (vaccination and PCR test results) to the Barbados government app were scanned. We then proceeded to the immigration desk, where there was no line and then through to pick up our bags. Our escort accompanied us the entire way to the waiting sedan we had also booked through fast-track services.

A half-hour ride up the coast to St. James Parish took us to The House, where we planned to stay for a week. It had been nine years since we last stayed at The House for a few days before a cruise.

We chose this property first and foremost because it is adults-only. It also has only thirty-four all-suite accommodation. The icing on the cake was that it is now owned by Marriott, where we enjoy Lifetime Platinum status, and this stay would award us points (although to date, we have not received them. Yet another story.)

The House has an interesting concept. There is no reception lobby, no concierge desk. There is a massive “living room” open to the air at both the front and the back, which also houses the dining area.

The living room at The House

We are greeted by an “ambassador” who plies us with rum punch (or anything else we want) and tells us what we can expect.

We take our key cards to our oceanfront suite on the main floor with its lanai just off the hot tub and find our luggage already there. You might wonder―as did we―whether it was a good idea to be on the main floor so close to “the action.” We had little to fear. Given the age and decorum of the guests (primarily British, thank heavens), there was no “action” to be found, only a Zen-like atmosphere and loads of relaxation.

Unlike on our last visit when we sampled the many options for fine dining on this part of the Barbadian coast, The House had become one of Marriott’s very first all-inclusive resorts. It seems that when they acquired Elegant Hotels a few years back, with its several Barbados properties, they added this amenity. Was it worth it? Well, it’s not a place for foodies, but we found the dining options very enjoyable.

Not much else has changed in the nine years since we first stayed there. The suites are still exactly the same as were the bathrooms, which need a serious upgrade. There is much to love about The House, and we will go back―after they do a renovation! We’ll tell you more when we compare the two resorts we visited on this trip in a near-future post.

Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Who says you have to jet off to far-flung places in search of amazing travel experiences? Regardless of where you live, we’d wager you could get in a car and drive for two hours to find yourself in another world. And you’re probably no more than a stone’s throw from some luxury accommodation. There’s a tendency to think that you aren’t really travelling if you haven’t left your own country. We beg to differ.

These discerning travellers live in Canada―Toronto, Canada’s largest city (4th largest in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA). So, for us, we only have to walk for ten to thirty minutes to be in any number of luxury hotels or to dine in a five-star restaurant. The COVID lockdown here in Ontario’s province has been longer and deeper than any jurisdiction on the continent. But we’re better off for it, and things are beginning to loosen up. So, it was time. We booked our first few days away in ten months, and we were off and running.

A pleasant hour-and-a-half drive from downtown where we live is where you’ll find small-town Ontario. This province is peppered with beautiful little towns and villages, and it’s about time we started exploring them. This year, we began with Alton, the home of Millcroft Inn and Spa, a member of the Vintage Hotels group. And it was lovely.

Two years ago, we stayed at Queen’s Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake, another Vintage Hotel, so we were expecting great things. Built in 1881 as a knitting mill, the Millcroft Inn is naturally situated on the edge of a mill pond with a beautiful waterfall that used to run its machinery. The interior of the main inn building is a bit non-prepossessing if you really want to know. But, in its defence, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and the plexiglass screens don’t really add anything to the ambience. The bar area looks like it would be wonderful in better times when we could sit at that bar, but we had to eat outside on the patio during our stay. This is hardly a hardship!

A view of the main building from a small opening in the trees across the pond.

The patio is completely covered and sits on the very edge of the millpond. The view across the pond is of densely packed trees completely hiding the rest of the inn buildings beyond. Shortly after we arrived late in the afternoon, we realized we were famished.

We made our way to the patio and had the place all to ourselves as we watched the rain disturb the peacefulness of the pond while drinking beautifully crafted martinis and eating their excellent charcuterie board. To say that the food is terrific would be something of an understatement.

Since Alton is a very pretty but very small village, really, the only game in town for dining is the Millcroft itself. We made our reservations for our three evenings on the restaurant patio in advance, which is highly recommended. Each meal was as delicious as the one before.

Their breakfast menu is interesting, but since we were staying for three nights (we were told many guests stay for only one), the offerings can get tiresome. We also did note that the breakfast service was nothing like the dinner service, which was impeccable. Two days in a row, we had to inquire as to the whereabouts of our meals, which then arrived with tepid poached eggs. The problem at breakfast seems to be that the room-service patrons are given priority over the ones actually sitting in the dining room. This is something they could work on.

We opted to stay in one of their priciest accommodations―what they call a croft room. It is really a two-level suite with a walkout to a small private terrace. Ours was furnished with a private hot tub on the little deck. Since this is a spa, there are several outdoor public hot tubs, but we prefer time to ourselves (as anyone who had ever read anything we’ve written will already know!). It was lovely. What about the room itself?

Where to begin? Let’s just say that it is rustic―rustic to the point of needing a renovation. The bathroom had obviously been done, but that was probably at least a decade ago and could perhaps use another spruce up. But if you love rustic, you’ll be in heaven.

The sleeping area is upstairs, which we knew about in advance. What we did not realize is that the bathroom, on the other hand, is downstairs. That means a long, dark, steep climb down and back up should you have to get up in the middle of the night. It also means several ups and downs of the stairs just to get ready in the morning. Something to consider.

We enjoyed a six-kilometre hike on the property and were happy we took along our hiking shoes. That’s the beauty of a road trip. You can throw extras in the trunk of your car just in case. The trails wander through a wooded area and into beautiful open fields where not a building―or another single person―can be seen. The only downside was that the trail markings are less than accurate, and the map the front desk provided―well, it would be helpful if a staff member actually hiked the trails to see that the map isn’t as accurate as it should be. They need an app for that.

And speaking of technology―the inn has a well-developed AI concierge of sorts. We communicated with it via text, and when we needed ice or hangers, we simply texted, and a personable staff member appeared with our request.

We took advantage of being in an area of our province with which we are not that familiar and took a short road trip each of the full days we were there. The first was to the pretty town of Orangeville, where we had a lovely patio lunch. The next day, we explored Guelph and had another delicious patio lunch in their downtown area. Guelph is a university town, so the downtown is crowded with eateries.

Our three-day adventure was just the beginning. We can feel it in our bones. We’re waiting until the winter for our first post-pandemic big trip when we have three weeks of island-hopping planned. Until then, we’ll be hitting the road every opportunity we get!

Autumn Escape to Muskoka

Lake Rosseau

Ever since Barry Manilow made a “Weekend in New England” synonymous with escaping from the city to a place that could “take you away” the notion of fleeing the urban metropolis for even a brief sojourn to tranquility has resonated. And it doesn’t even have to be to spend time with someone you see only infrequently (as the song seems to imply). Our escape to the country this past week wasn’t a weekend (it was a mid-week sojourn which is even better), it was the two of us who spend all our time together (who better to accompany you to commune with nature) and it wasn’t New England (it was the Muskoka Lakes region of Canada). But that’s just splitting hairs. We had a wonderful time.

We leave Toronto and head north toward what is referred to in the city as “cottage country.” This cottage country is situated on the southernmost edge of a landmass referred to as the Canadian Shield. This is a mass of some eight million square kilometres of pre-Cambrian rock face that all good little Canadians learn about in elementary school geography. We have to admit, it more frequently conjured images of flat masses of rock, and although this is the case way up north, this southern edge is largely forested. In the fall, it takes on rich hues of fiery red, vivid orange, vibrant yellow, and rusty brown. What really makes it cottage country, though, is the fact that the region is sprinkled with 1600 interconnected lakes and nineteen watersheds. That’s a lot of waterfront property!

The Muskoka region. We explored from Gravenhurst at the bottom around through Rosseau and over to Huntsville at the very top right-hand corner of the map.

As you can see on the map, many of the lakes are almost shard-like in their configuration, but among them are several sizable lakes. One of the three largest is Lake Rosseau – our destination. The drive north takes us almost three hours (only two and a bit if you don’t count the time it takes to actually clear the city!) and takes us past rolling countryside and lake after lake with cottages dotting the shorelines here and there. But don’t get the idea that these “cottages” are tiny substitutes for homes. There are a few of those, but so many of them have three-boat boathouses on the shore up from which you can glimpse the multi-million-dollar estates. These are the summer homes of the rich and famous, but mostly just rich. (The famous ones with homes here? These include Martin Short, Tom Hanks, Kate Hudson and parents Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russel, Steven Spielberg and even Justin Beiber if you must know.)

The day is rainy and cloudy, but we are never put off by the weather (remember the saying? There is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices. Amen to that). We arrive at our destination: the JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka Resort and Spa to find that the staff all seem to have evaporated. There isn’t a bell-person or valet in sight. We haul our luggage in the door and once someone realizes that guests have arrived, the staff snap to Marriott-level guest service and we don’t have another complaint.

We arrive at the resort.

Our room has a wonderful view of the lake, a fireplace and a large terrace. Since the weather is a bit brisk, we don’t have much of a chance to sit out and meditate on the water and the clean air, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. Since it turns out that much of the resort is time-shared, the accommodation, regardless of size, seems to all have kitchenettes, eating and lounging areas. Our room was very spacious with a wonderful, large bathroom.

The living area of our waterview room…
Our fireplace…
Our view.

You could be forgiven for expecting this hotel to be a bit like the old-time grand hotels that we wrote about after we visited the Sagamore in upstate New York, but this one was actually built only ten years ago. This actually has a lot going for it since it means that the rooms are much larger and the bathrooms soooo much larger and better equipped.

Lake Rosseau waterfront at the resort.

With the nippy fall day, we really enjoy the two wonderful fireplaces in the lobby areas on the main floor – and a soaring atrium, a few other features that don’t come along with the old hotels. The hotel has two terrific high-end restaurants and we experience both. Teca, the Italian restaurant, is one of those places that make you feel as if you aren’t actually in a hotel rather dining at an esteemed restaurant anywhere in the world. The food and service are both brilliant. The Chop House is also a terrific steakhouse.

The resort from the water side.

So, here we are in Muskoka. What to do? The resort itself offers a few activities, none of which are the kinds of things we like to do, so we decide to explore the area. Each day we head out to explore another road and visit the three largest towns in the regions Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville. Bear in mind that the population of Huntsville, the largest, is something shy of 20,000. That being said, we manage to find great places for lunch and Patty finds at least four terrific little boutiques for a bit of shopping. When we arrive back at the resort, the staff have a wood fire burning out front. One day they’re asking us to join them to roast marshmallows. Another day they’re offering hot chocolate. There is hardly another soul around in spite of the fact that a convention has arrived. We love the solitude.

If it had been a bit earlier in the season, we could have boarded one of the vintage lake steamers from the dock at Gravenhurst to tour Lake Rosseau from the water. Maybe next time.

But the highlight of the visit was the young people working at the Marriott resort. They represented a variety of ethnicities and cultures yet seemed all to be acquiring the Marriott culture that is always something we look forward to when we visit other cities and countries. A weekend in New England? How about a mid-week escape to Muskoka? Done!